Hercules (2014)

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twohalfstar

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Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson is the great WWE success story. When the juggernaut wrestling promotion tried its best to launch Hulk Hogan’s movie career with its first foray into film production, 1989’s No Holds Barred, the results were mixed. Hogan remains the most widely known household name in wrestling, but his movie career, which featured long-forgotten titles like Suburban Commando & Mr. Nanny, didn’t exactly pan out as planned. The Rock, on the other hand, basically launched WWE’s movie-making division all by his lonesome. His first three starring roles in The Scorpion King, The Rundown, and Walking Tall basically built WWE Studios from the ground up. The Rock’s world-class shit-talking skills & excessive mugging in his wrestling promos translated well to action stardom & he’s been the sole wrestler who’s been able to make a long-term career for himself on the big screen (though Bautista may be next in line).

The secret to Johnson’s success? He’s actually a damn good actor. He has a lot of weird, mostly untapped energy that can reach far beyond the limited roles he’s been landing. With early parts in action shlock like Doom & The Scorpion King, he’s proven himself to be one of the last Schwarzenegger-type muscle gods who manage to look convincing while kicking ass & dispensing pun-heavy quips indiscriminately. He’s perfectly suited for action movie roles, but he’s also being underserved in them. Riskier projects, like the more unhinged Southland Tales and Pain & Gain, have unleashed a different Dwayne Johnson altogether, one completely independent of the Schwarzeneggers & Van Dammes before him. He has a manic beast lurking under that confident exterior, just waiting to out-weird any other action star in the world, Stallone & Cage included.

Unfortunately, Hercules does not employ the offbeat wild-man Dwayne Johnson, but instead opts for the cookie-cutter action star The Rock. He’s in full Scorpion King mode here, hitting so many familiar Schwarzenegger beats that I assumed it was secretly a Conan the Barbarian remake that couldn’t secure the rights. Hercules’ opening narration plays like a trailer to a much better film, The Rock slaying a succession of giant, mystical beasts with ease. It slows down from there, limiting the action to a single episode of Hercules and his rag-tag crew of super-warriors leading an army into an epic battle, the exact kind of narrative you’d expect from vintage Conan the Barbarian story record. The movie has a sort of charm in its limited scope, especially in its lighthearted approach to mass violence and in The Rock’s natural magnetism. Most of Hercules’ best moments arise from The Rock’s inherent coolness. He just looks like a total badass as he wears a lion’s head as a crown, defeats wolves & charging horses with just his bare hands, and smashes a hooded executioner to pulp with a smaller, less talkative rock. Hercules makes for a much more convincing, enjoyable superhero adaptation/reboot than the similarly reductionist films I, Frankenstein & Dracula Untold, but in the end a lot of your enjoyment will hinge on how much you enjoy spending time with The Rock, as opposed to how much room Dwayne Johnson is given to be his enchanting self.

The transition from babyface wrestler to action hero makes total sense. Both roles require a convincing “good guy” to put the world’s depthless “bad guys” in their place. The Rock has had a few great action roles over the past decade or so, and with the exception of a couple missteps like The Tooth Fairy, he’s managed to avoid the pitfalls of Hulk Hogan’s career path. It’s just that after watching what a stranger, more nuanced Dwayne Johnson can do, it’s worrisome that he’s still making something this close to The Scorpion King at this point in time. Hercules can be a fun, one-time viewing for the audience, but let’s hope it’s not a damning career-trajectory indicator for Johnson. He can do so much more when given the chance.

-Brandon Ledet

How to Play the See No Evil (2006) Drinking Game

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One of the earliest (and trashiest) trends we’re developing here in Swampflix’s infancy is a focus on pro wrestling movies. We’ve even designated a Wrestling Cinema page, where you can find all reviews & articles for movies somehow related to pro wrestlers or to “sports entertainment” in general. I expect that over time (if it hasn’t happened already) we’ll end up spending way too much time & energy poring over the details of even the most dire entries in Wrestling Cinema, whether or not they deserve the effort. Spoiler: they typically don’t.

Even this early in our run, we’ve already spilled entirely too much ink on one particular Wrestling Cinema franchise: the pro wrestler Kane’s slasher vehicle See No Evil. Between our reviews of See No Evil (2006) & See No Evil 2 (2014), we’ve written ~1,500 words about a very simple set of films. The “tl;dr” version: the first one is surprisingly fun & nasty; the second one is a waste of your time. Even though we’ve already covered too much ground with the franchise at this point, there is one detail I feel we shouldn’t have skipped over: the See No Evil drinking game.

We’ve previously mentioned the awful dialogue, terrible acting, and “vile, hateful” teenage characters that populate the first See No Evil, but not in great detail. Instead of providing the teens meaningful exchanges or character arcs, most of the film’s dialogue consists of long strings of insults. Characters call each other “sluts” & “assholes” with an alarming frequency. The script’s dependency on insults would be an annoyance if the insults weren’t both so over-the-top in their prevalence and also surprisingly appropriate for the film’s overall nasty look & tone. The insults are so constant, so overwhelming that it becomes difficult to notice anything else (besides, you know, the brutal murders).

Which brings me to the rules of the See No Evil drinking game:
1) Drink whenever a character insults someone.

That’s it. You should have plenty to drink with just this one prompt. There may be some questions to suss out before the game begins like “Does it count if they insult an inanimate object or a building?” and “Does murdering someone count as an insult?” My own thoughts on that second question: in regards to this particular group of degenerates, murder might be more of a favor or a blessing.

Note: We only suggest playing this game with the first See No Evil movie. This is not only because the characters in See No Evil 2 are much kinder to each other, but also because we don’t recommend you watch the sequel at all.

Play safe!

-Brandon Ledet

See No Evil 2 (2014)

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onehalfstar

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A lot can change in 8 years. Technology & cultural tastes are especially vulnerable to the passage of time. Fashion, language, entertainment, and modes of communication & business can go through massive transformations in just 8 months, let alone 8 years. 2014’s See No Evil 2, the sequel to 2006’s See No Evil, makes the mistake of ignoring these transformations entirely. It sets the lackluster sequel on the same night as the gross-out slasher original, but makes no attempts at continuity in the characters’ appearances or electronics. In one movie, they’re texting on bejeweled flip phones and in the next they’re discussing what’s trending on Twitter. It’s jarring.

The continuity issues don’t stop there. The two films are vastly different in both the stories they tell & the tone they tell them in. At the end of See No Evil there are 3 survivors from the hotel massacre & the supernaturally strong serial killer, Jacob Goodnight (ugh), is ultimately defeated when his heart is impaled. See No Evil 2 is set in the morgue that accepts the bodies from the hotel & there are no survivors to speak of. The killer’s eye is still missing from an attack in the first film, but his not-impaled heart is still beating in an early ambulance scene. There’s also no mention of the fact that he literally has maggots for brains in the first film or that his favorite hobby is to collect eyeballs as trophies of his kills. The eyeball collecting is a curious detail to ignore, since the pun in the film’s title is almost entirely dependent upon it. Without the eyeballs there is very little connecting the two films besides the title and the Jacob Goodnight character. Even the actor/professional wrestler who plays Jacob Goodnight is billed differently in the two films. In See No Evil he is simply billed as his wrestling persona “Kane”. In See No Evil 2, he’s graduated to Glenn “Kane” Jacobs.

Of course, consistency is not necessary to making an enjoyable slasher film starring a professional wrestler. It’s conceivably possible that the two drastically different See No Evil movies could peacefully co-exist as entertaining, loosely connected gore fests. As James pointed out in his review, the first See No Evil is surprisingly fun. It boasts “a sick charm because it knows exactly the kind of film it is and doesn’t pretend to be anything more.” See No Evil 2 unfortunately loses sight of the original’s tried-and-true cheap thrills slasher format and mistakenly attempts a slow burn suspense that is frankly beyond its limited reach. The first See No Evil is a surprisingly nasty gore fest overstuffed with vile, hateful characters that viciously get their comeuppance one at a time. See No Evil 2, by comparison, is overstuffed with bland couples sussing out their even blander relationship dynamics until they’re uneventfully killed off-screen. By the time a throat is finally slit in plain view an hour into the film & Goodnight discovers the morgue’s stash of bone saws, I felt like a sick bastard for cheering. Without any other entertaining element in play, I had a terrible case of unsatisfied bloodlust during most of the run time.

There are a few lonely bright spots in See No Evil 2. Kane, excuse me, Glen “Kane” Jacobs is visually terrifying enough in real life to be an imposing figure in a slasher movie without much help, something the first See No Evil uses to its advantage. See No Evil 2 goes the extra mile and costumes him in a plastic burn victim mask & black rubber apron that does wonders for his appearance. When he pauses to inspect his new, “improved” visage in a bathroom mirror he has a fairly hilarious “What have I become?” moment that I got a kick out of. The film’s central idea of throwing a surprise birthday party in a morgue also has an amusing charm to it, as does Kane taking chair shots to the head, something he’s been well-trained to do in the wrestling ring. Like most things in this franchise, though, the chair shots gag is exploited much more effectively in the first film, which makes the moment a little hollow. Similarly, by the time See No Evil 2’s sole over-the-top gore arrives in the last ten minutes (the killer is pumped full of vibrantly blue embalming fluid) the film had already asked for too much patience & instead of the “Awesome!” reaction it was looking for, I found myself thinking “Finally!”, something I didn’t experience with the first film.

Of course, it’s a little unfair to constantly compare the entertainment value of See No Evil 2 to that of its predecessor, but it’s a comparison that the film itself encourages often. There are frequent flashbacks & recaps of the first film in its sequel, unwisely reminding me that the product was actually fun at one time. In these recaps it becomes overwhelmingly clear just how different the two movies are. In 2006 See No Evil was imitating the recent successes of ultraviolent (in an icky way) horror flicks like Hostel & Saw, which allowed it to supplant minor details like a decent script or a reason to exist with detached eyeballs and buckets of gore. In the 8 years since its release Hollywood horror had softened greatly, aiming its sights on a PG-13 crowd, playing down bloodshed in order to sell more tickets. Instead of ignoring this trend like it ignored the continuity in the films’ story, the See No Evil franchise also softened in those 8 years. You can see the difference in See No Evil 2’s flashbacks, the dank squalor of the first film clashing with the clinical cleanliness of the second.

Although the films are ostensibly set on the same night, the 8 years that separate them are impossible to ignore. Updating See No Evil 2 for the watered-down 2014 slasher aesthetic was a huge mistake. It was a franchise well-suited for 2006’s often disgusting brand of gross-out gore & torture. Remove its mean streak and there’s not much left besides a bald, one-eyed wrestler in a plastic mask gloomily gazing in a bathroom mirror, asking himself “What have I become?”

-Brandon Ledet

Knucklehead (2010)

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halfstar

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Who is the target audience for Knucklehead? Is it for kids? There are plenty of fart jokes & slapstick antics, but there are also homosexual innuendos, religious mockery, and racial stereotypes. Is it for fans of professional wrestling? The movie features WWE superstar Paul Wight (aka Big Show/The Giant), but the fight scenes are too infantile to whet any wrestling fan’s appetite, the climactic fighting competition consisting of a half-assed wrestling montage accompanied by generic nu metal. But probably the most important question for the sake of this review is: Is this movie for anyone? The answer is definitely not.

The first time we meet the 7 foot, 450lbs hero at the center of Knucklehead, he is descending from the rafters during his orphanage’s rendition of The Wizard of Oz. He is playing the Good Witch, but the gentle giant soon ruins the production by clumsily destroying the set. Why is a full grown man still an orphan? Simply, the film explains no one wants to adopt a giant. It becomes apparent, however, that Walter’s below average intelligence & awful luck are the true reason. In his very next scene he burns down the orphanage’s kitchen by throwing grease on a raging fire. What a knucklehead! Inexplicably, the orphanage has no fire insurance and must raise the money quickly or all the poor orphans will be evicted. But in an act of divine intervention, Walter is pushed through a stained glass window at the exact moment that former MMA fighter turned promoter Eddie Sullivan is asking God to wash away his gambling debts. It’s a miracle! Eddie sees the potential in him and they soon embark on a road trip to New Orleans for the “Beatdown on the Bayou”, a fighting tournament with a $100,000 prize that will solve both their problems. Their journey basically amounts to a series of formulaic gags involving farts, poops, and urine (sometimes simultaneously), that are punctuated by lessons about family, determination, and faith.

It’s obvious the filmmakers were imitating the Farrelly Brothers with this attempt to mix sweet, light-hearted comedy with gross-out humor but, unlike the Farrellys, they don’t give us any characters to care about or any truly gross-out moments. I watched a human giant flatulate, act silly and beat people and I still wasn’t entertained. That’s pretty sad. Knucklehead does have some offensive moments, but not the good kind. As is standard for a lot of WWE entertainment, the minority characters are stereotypical and the butt of a lot of the jokes. We encounter a trucker smuggling Mexicans; a Jewish boxer Sugar Ray Rosenburg, the Monster of Matza, who Walter is convinced to beat down because “That guy hates Christmas”; and a smooth hustler black child that runs boxing fights out of his dad’s house. The movie pretends to have themes like the power of hope and believing in miracles but at its heart it is deeply cynical: Sister Francesca agrees to let Walter fight only after her cut of the purse is mentioned; Eddie’s love interest who works at the orphanage, Mary, reveals she used to be a stripper; a Jewish bookie runs fights out of a synagogue.

Will Patton, Dennis Farina, and Wendie Malick are all excellent character actors who have done great work in the past, but every time one of them was on the screen in Knucklehead I sat perplexed, asking “Why are you in this movie?” There is no point in hiring talented actors if there is nothing interesting for them to say. Case in point: Eddie’s statement “What do you mean the engine’s smoking?” as an engine is billowing smoke. Paul Wight is likable enough, but can’t be expected to carry a feature length film after the poop jokes outwear their welcome. Not even a mildly entertaining bear fight, reminiscent of Hercules in New York, can save this dumb, poorly written dud.

I feel like a Knucklehead for having sat through this movie.

Knucklehead is currently streaming on Netflix.

-James Cohn